While Navratri is celebrated all over India, it is undoubtedly at its vibrant best in Gujarat. In the state’s towns, cities and villages, men and women mark the nine-day festival by participating in the traditional dances of ras garba or the dandiya. Around a statue of the Hindu goddess Durga or a lamp, they sway and swirl, as heady beats of the dhol fill the air.
But Navratri isn’t the only festival in Gujarat that is celebrated with garba. Christmas is another.
Christian garbas are songs that are set to the traditional garba tunes, though with one big difference – the lyrics are in praise of Jesus Christ. These songs have been an integral part of Christmas festivities in Gujarat for several decades. They are played in church compounds and community halls, and sometimes in large grounds in cities like Ahmedabad and Surat, as men and women dance to them.
“We Gujarati Christians love our traditions,” said Henny Gohil Christian, who has sung at gospel concerts and performed on 25 Christian music albums. “We want to sing and dance to the tunes of the garba, but as we can’t participate in idol worship, we have our own community garbas. During the Christmas week, we have a huge garba in the Christian society in Maninagar in Ahmedabad, close to the old red church.”
Christians make up just .52% of Gujarat’s population, and are mostly concentrated in major cities or in some tribal villages. But garba – a dance in which the performer makes circular movements with hands and feet – is as important to them as to any other community in the state.
C Vanveer, a Gujarati Christian composer and songwriter who lives in Mumbai, was one of the earliest to start writing Christian garbas. He did so at a time, he says, when the Christian youth had to dance to traditional hymns in Gujarati that did not have proper beats. In his wish to give people a chance to “dance non-stop for at least 30 minutes”, Vanveer wrote lyrics made of Biblical stories and “set them to garba tunes”. His first album released in 1993. And since then he has released five volumes of his album Taadiyo Na Taal Ye (To The Beats Of Claps).
These garbas are performed in the cities where there is a substantial Gujarati Christian community, which includes Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot, Nadiad, Anand, Bharuch, Dahod, Valsad, Bhavnagar and Gandhidham, as well as in some smaller towns such as Songadh, Devgadh Baria and Jhagadiya. Shamianas are erected in church compounds and there is often a large stage for the live performances. Dressed in their finery, men and women dance for hours together.
Like Hindus, Gujarati Christians too have taken the tradition abroad. Selestie Alfons moved to Orange City in California in 2016 after her marriage. “It’s good to find that people here perform Christian garbas during Christmas,” she said. “Of course, it’s not like home but still it’s good to do the garba here.”
Vinod Christian, who lives in Ahmedabad, started writing Christian garba songs, composing them and performing around “30 years ago”. He has penned more around 60 such songs: “I have my own troupe and we perform during Christmas and weddings. Thousands of people participate in these events each year.”
For most Gujarati Christians, the dances have become more about enjoying a shared cultural experience. “Gujarati Christians perform the garba, whether they are in New York, or Los Angeles,” said Umang Satyabhashak, who went to New York from Ahmedabad 22 years ago. Gohil agreed. “We can participate in the garba along with our family and friends so it’s really great,” she said. “It’s a nice way of celebrating the birth of Lord Jesus but in our own cultural way.”